Update on My Writing

blog - resurrection 1Hi All,

I’m going to keep this brief. I just wanted to give you a quick update on content here at my site as well as on the direction of my blog posting in general.

You may have noticed that each of my recent posts has contained a reference to “originally posted at TimeofGrace.org” in addition to a link. I had a little trial period for writing with the Time of Grace blogging ministry. After about 2 months of doing so, I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m interested in continuing to pursue at the moment. There are a number of reasons for this, but I wanted to make it clear what the reason was NOT – I didn’t stop because there was any disagreement between me and the people at Time of Grace. I have nothing but positive things to say about all of the people I worked with. They were very kind, accommodating, and helpful. They are doing LOTS of wonderful gospel ministry and I was thankful for the opportunity.

At this time, however, I think we may have slightly different readership demographics. I wasn’t convinced that some who followed ToG particularly appreciated my perspective, thoughts, or occasional attempts to challenge the current Christian status quo. Again, the leadership itself was tremendously supportive, but I had a nagging concern that some of my opinions along the way might somehow detract from the wonderful gospel ministry being done there and that weighed on me.

Whether I say something that challenges readers to reconsider something in light of the gospel or if I merely present simple gospel truth, and someone doesn’t like it, I want any reaction to that channeled back in my direction. Furthermore, I want to foster an online environment in which Christians and non-Christians alike can respectfully disagree in charitable dialogue. There is enough hate, bitterness, and condescension in the world – we can shine a light in the direction of something different.

At times in the past I’ve received a few comments about my posts representing other WELS pastors, past schools I’ve attended, etc. I certainly do have some responsibility when it comes to various ties I may have, but please make no mistake, I’m not intentionally speaking on behalf of an entire church body, any schools, my entire church in Rochester, my wife, my friends, my dog Gemma, or anyone else. My opinions are my own, as much as possible, shaped by Jesus.

So, with that in mind, I wanted to restate the purpose of my site:

This blog is intended to help Christians see our world through eyes of faith. I’m seeking to apply biblical principles to our society in order to gain appreciation for changeless truth in a changing world. Pastor Hein is pastor at Resurrection & Life Lutheran Church in Rochester, MN.

I’ll keep on truckin’ right here…

Thanks for your love and support!

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The Bad “I’m Sorry” ( and 3 Myths About Forgiveness)

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The bad “I’m sorry.” We’ve all gotten it. We’ve all given it.

The bad “I’m sorry” is a social occasion where someone knows an expectation exists for them to express remorse or sympathy for an unfortunate event they caused, so they comply; in reality, however, it’s apparent that the offending party doesn’t regret the action at all.

The first realization I had that such a thing existed came when watching Seinfeld as a kid. James Spader guest-starred as a recovering alcoholic who was going through step 9 of the AA program, i.e. making amends. Jerry Seinfeld’s ever-annoyed sidekick, George Costanza, wanted an apology for an incident from years earlier – George had asked to borrow a sweater during a party at Spader’s drafty apartment. Instead, Spader, in front of everyone at the party, said that George’s huge head would stretch out the neckhole of his sweater and then made the counter offer of a cheap, very unflattering MetLife windbreaker.

Years later, and now with the weight of Step 9 behind him, George confronted Spader, demanding an apology. Spader calmly replied“I’m so sorry that I didn’t want your rather bulbous head struggling to find its way through the normal-sized neck hole of my finely knit sweater,” much to the delight of his giggling friends. Now George needed an apology for the bad apology.

You know exactly how this feels. I do too.

As a pastor, I do a decent amount of counseling and mediation between parties in disagreement. I’ve seen countless bad “I’m sorrys.” Generally, they come out sounding something like, “I’m sorry you think/feel that….” OR “I’m sorry if you….” In other words, the apology ends up being like a polite summary of the offended party’s incompetence.

I’ll grant that sometimes this sort of thinking is legitimate. Sometimes the offended party is completely off base. If that’s the case though, I’d avoid the “I’m sorry” verbiage, as insincere apologies only complicate matters.

On many occasions, however, we stink at “I’m sorrys” simply because we’re proud and angry and we don’t believe the other party has properly acknowledged their fault in the matter.

Furthermore, we live in a time where people aren’t expected to say what they’re thinking. We’re expected to say what’s expected, what’s socially appropriate. This creates an even deeper cynicism about apologies and forgiveness.

All of this leads me to believe that we have some fairly large societal misperceptions about the language of reconciliation. So…I wanted to spend a moment today trying to debunk, from the Bible’s perspective, some common myths about forgiveness.

(NOTE: God’s forgiveness for our sins is obviously a major scriptural theme and always worth thoughtful consideration. But for our purposes today, I’m going to primarily address the benefits of human-to-human forgiveness, motivated by God.)

MYTH 1) Forgiveness primarily benefits the offending party.

Years ago, I remember speaking with a  woman who, from my perspective, had been legitimately wronged by her ex-husband (whom I never met). We talked a lot about God’s expectation for us to forgive others as well as our request in the Lord’s Prayer that God would grant us forgiveness in the same measure that we forgive others. At one point, she very matter-of-factly said, “I won’t forgive him. I never will be able to forgive him for what he did.”

I was trying very hard to be sympathetic to what she’d been through. But there was an obvious logical disconnect here and it was difficult for me to bite my tongue.

So far as I could tell, the ex-husband had moved on with his life and never thought about this woman anymore. He seemingly wasn’t sorry and didn’t care about the misery he had (and was continuing to) put her through. He was relieved to be done with this relationship. But this woman kept foolishly thinking that by not forgiving him, by not letting his transgressions go, she was causing him some sort of hurt. But the only one who was still experiencing pain from this relationship was her.

There is good reason why emotional damage from previous relationships has taken on the title today of “baggage.” This is stuff we have to carry around. Much like hauling your luggage through a large, congested airport, hauling your emotional and relational baggage around for years is exhausting. This is certainly part of the reason why God has given Christians this mechanism called forgiveness – i.e. when we forgive, we are liberated from the weight of sin against us.

The most common Greek word to describe the concept of forgiveness is aphiemi, which is literally the idea of sending something away or letting something go. If you let something go, you no longer have to carry it around. You are freed.

So, yes, forgiveness does benefit the offending party. It does tend to lead to relational reconciliation, certainly more than if there is no forgiveness. But equally important, forgiveness also benefits the health of the one doing the forgiving.

Ephesians 4:31-32 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

MYTH 2) Forgiving means forgetting.

When God forgives us, the Bible tells us that he will forgive (our) wickedness and will remember (our) sins no more.” (Heb. 8:12) That said, this point shouldn’t be overstated to such an extent that it violates God’s omniscience. In other words, we are judicially justified by God, and heaven is ours as if we had not sinned, but an awareness of our sins hasn’t escaped God’s knowledge. Nor does that happen to us. 

Short of a lobotomy, it’d be foolish to think someone, at least in this lifetime, could have some offenses completely wiped from their memory banks – e.g. abuse, rape, murder of loved ones, etc.

Forgiveness does not then mean that we can (or necessarily even should) never think about tragedies that have come our way.

Dwelling for lengthy periods of time wouldn’t be healthy or productive. And the biblical ideal for directing our thoughts is clearly that we “forget what is behind and strain toward what is ahead” (Phil. 3:13). Nonetheless, someone who is struggling to forgive should not see “forgetting” as a necessary but impossible hurdle to get over before forgiveness can take place. Furthermore, someone who has not forgotten sins committed against them shouldn’t feel as though their forgiveness is insufficient because they still experience some pain over that past wrongdoing.

Remember, the concept behind aphiemi is more “letting it go” than it is non-remembering. It’s not a thought repression, but a conscious choice to not hold something against someone any longer.

MYTH 3) You need someone to say “I’m sorry” in order to forgive.

Perhaps the most shocking of all, you don’t actually need anyone to say anything to you in order to forgive them. You don’t need groveling. You don’t need tears. You don’t need a good “I’m sorry” or really an “I’m sorry” at all.

How do I know this? Just look at the how, when, and why of God’s forgiveness to you.

The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8) Through Christ’s death (how), before we ever thought about repenting (when), because he loved us so much (why), God forgave our sins. While we were still sinners! Not only hadn’t we earned forgiveness, we weren’t even asking for it! We weren’t even considering ourselves needing of it! That’s grace. Not just showing love to people who don’t fully deserve it (as amazing as that is), but showing love to people whose thoughts and actions suggest they don’t want or need it. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

Through Jesus, God showed grace – he forgave you and me all our transgressions, before we gave him a good “I’m sorry.” His Spirit now lives inside you, which means that you have the capacity to forgive that way too.

Perfect morality is a nice ideal, but unrealistic for someone here on earth. Better forgiveness, however, is within our reach.

Don’t buy the world’s foolish myths about forgiveness. Trust the teaching of the Savior who invented it.

(Article originally published at TimeofGrace.org)

Is God Chastising You?

blog - chastising 1I always find it interesting how some words in the English language today have fallen out of usage. Sometimes that’s because we’ve found new phrases, words, or slang that better capture the ideas behind those words. But other times words drop out of circulation because we almost collectively, as a society, don’t even agree with the ideas behind the words themselves anymore.

For instance, the Bible has a commandment (actually two, depending on how you number them) that says, “You shall not covet.” Well, when was the last time you heard someone in your day-to-day life reference coveting? When was the last time you confessed your own coveting? As a pastor, I’ve had many people come to me regretting their mistakes. I have yet to have someone contact me and ask for help and support for his or her coveting problem.

Coveting, by definition, is an inappropriate desire for something you should not have. It can be a real, powerful, destructive, life-consuming problem. But the strange thing is that we live in a world today where we’re told that each individual is free to entertain any desires that he/she would like. These desires are not considered right or wrong, just products of who we are. Consequently, calling a desire “inappropriate” seems like a foreign thought to most modern Americans. We’ve lost the concept of coveting.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is considered something of an instant classic in social science circles. In it, Taylor describes the process of the secularization of the Western world. He says that as we’ve drifted from a God-centric view of the universe to a human-centric view, the meaning of life has shifted from glorifying God to glorifying man, i.e., glorifying self. And this is the reason why in Western civilization we believe the true purpose and meaning of life is our own pleasure, our own comfort, our own happiness. Incidentally, when American Christians reference their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are they channeling a biblical proverb? Nonsense. They’re echoing Western secular rhetoric and ideals. How would this life being about the “pursuit of my happiness” square with Jesus’ repeated encouragements to “take up [your] cross and follow me” (Matthew 10:38)?

Now, very similar to what’s happened with the idea of coveting then is what’s happened to this thing called “chastisement.” Whereas coveting is sort of a pursuit of a comfort we shouldn’t have, chastising is an intentional, loving reduction of our comfort. It’s related to the old English word chasten, which means, “to bring discipline or suffering for the sake of improving character.”

So why don’t you hear people ever using the word chastise today? ANSWER: Because the idea of chastisement is directly at odds with the way modern secular people think.

Sure, we still have the concept of “punishment.” We acknowledge the reality of suffering, the necessity of consequence for bad behavior, and generally perceive it as a form of retribution. But this idea that any pain or discomfort could actually be beneficial, a blessing even to us, that it would come from a place of love, not hate or anger, almost seems so foreign to people today that we’ve all but lost the word from our modern English vocabularies.

Interestingly, in the past 20 to 30 years we’ve also added other words like karma to English vernacular. This unquestionably represents an American sentiment that we need a richer vocabulary to make sense of the chaos and seeming injustices of life. Karma still wouldn’t be a worthy substitute for chastisement though, because although it speaks to cosmic justice, karma is technically completely impersonal. Chastisement is very personal, but loving. Punishment is personal, but retributive. We just can’t get by without that antiquated-sounding chastisement. We need it. In fact, I’d venture to say that it’s impossible to be at peace with God’s operations without having some understanding of chastisement.

Here’s the obstacle for modern thinkers. Many people wonder that if God is a God of grace, forgiveness, and mercy, then why does it constantly seem like we’re paying for our mistakes? If he’s God, then when we screw up, can’t he just give us a nice little 30-minute sermon, explain whatever we did wrong, and then send us on our merry way?

If God really, freely forgives, then why must we endure hardship in life?

But let’s be honest. Who of us has actually ever learned a major life lesson that way? Nobody really changes his/her heart or mind or will just by being told to. Rarely do people ever recognize the horror of their sin simply by being told that they are sinners. We only start to actually appreciate the severity of our sins when we are shown the damage caused by those sins. We humans just don’t learn much in the way of life lessons by being told. We learn more by being shown.

If that sounds strange, just remember that it works the same way with all of life’s major lessons. Take love, for example. Nobody ever concluded how incredibly loved they were merely by being told they were loved. It only comes when they are shown great love. If you only ever told a little child, “I love you,” but then you never fed the child or provided warmth or cleaned or protected or cared for the child, he/she would never really experience love and therefore would never learn/know love.

I’m not suggesting that words are useless. I’m suggesting that they can be fairly cheap and therefore not fully transformative. This, by the way, is spelled out in Scripture when it comes to Christ’s love also. In John’s first New Testament letter, he doesn’t say, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus told us how much he loved us.” Nope. Rather, he says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). Though he told us, he didn’t just tell us. He showed us.

The same is true with our sinfulness. As hard as it is for us, we really do have to experience the ugliness of our sins before we’re compelled to turn from them. That’s not punishment; it’s chastisement. On the surface, this might look like retribution on God’s part. Punishment and chastisement often feel the same. The difference really lies in the motive from which it comes.

Granted, from our perspective, it’s hard (sometimes impossible) to discern why the difficulties of life show up. Whenever we experience some suffering, believers often immediately start to think: What caused this? What did I do to deserve this? Interestingly, the Bible offers no “pat answers” here. You read through Scripture’s wisdom literature and the response is remarkably nuanced. Read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and you get the impression that suffering is mostly self-inflicted, i.e., we reap what we sow. But then you read through Job and you realize that much suffering in life is mysteriously unrelated to any particular sin.

The bottom line, however, is this: whenever experiencing any suffering, we get a heightened sense of our own frailty, our weakness, our dependency on God, and yes, our sinfulness. And in the spectrum of life’s grief, though we can’t always pinpoint it, there is some chastisement from God. Is this a bad thing? Not if it saves your soul, it’s not! It can be uncomfortable, but it’s healthy.

The writer to the Hebrews says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:7,11). The words I want you to appreciate the most there are the words father and children. You know what the difference between chastisement and punishment is? Loving relationship.

When an employee screws up at the office, if it’s a bad enough offense, he gets fired by his boss and sent away from the building. But when a son screws up at home, he gets disciplined by his father, perhaps grounded, and stays at home. That’s the difference! If God is a boss, then when you mess up, he punishes you by pushing you away as far from him as he can. But if God is a Father, then when you mess up, he grabs you and pulls you as close to him as possible. Both may initially feel like rejection. But one is coming from a place of love.

Don’t be upset about God’s chastisement in your life; praise him for it as a loving Father who’s doing a difficult thing.

Finally, you know why we’re able to call ourselves children of God in the first place? It’s because the one true child of God, Jesus Christ, got punished, not chastised, in our place, for our sins. On the cross, the Father disowned Jesus, which is why Jesus cried out in agony not, “My Father,” but, “My God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus constantly refers to God as “My Father” throughout the gospels. Why not here on the cross? Because here he couldn’t call him Father. At that moment he’d been cast out of the family. Why? So that we might switch places with him. The real Son got fired so that we, the unfaithful employees, might be accepted into the family and treated as children in God’s house.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, can kick you out of God’s household. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve screwed up in this lifetime. And we’ve all done things we sorely regret, things for which there are painful consequences in this life, things for which we humbly and patiently accept chastising. But for the sake of Jesus Christ, our status as God’s dearly loved children will never, ever, ever be put into jeopardy. Our home, our place in heaven, has been secured.

Praise God even in the chastising. Because he’s a loving Father, and that’s what a loving Father does.

(Article originally posted at TimeofGrace.org)

The Search for “HOME”

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Opening this week is the highly anticipated film starring Matt Damon, directed by Ridley Scott, called The Martian. The film is an adaptation of Andy Weir’s 2011 novel by the same name. Damon plays an astronaut who is presumed dead while on a mission to Mars and is consequently left behind by his crew with little in the way of supplies and, initially, no way to communicate with home.

This Martian comes on the heels of other recent similar and successful Hollywood offerings like last year’s Interstellar and 2013’s Gravity. Going back further, these films evoke the same type of reactions as 2000’s Cast Away. The uneasy realization the viewer experiences is simply this: I’m a minuscule creature in this universe, and I desperately just want to get home.

While filmmakers have been tapping into this yearning as of late, philosophers and psychologists have been talking about this same sensation for well over a hundred years. German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger called it “unheimlichkeit,” i.e. homelessness. It’s the sensation we humans often encounter in which we strangely feel almost like aliens even though we were born into this world.

This is very bizarre when you think about it. This is the only life we’ve known. This is the only planet we’ve been on. Why should we yearn for something more? This makes absolutely no sense from a naturalistic, evolutionary point of view.

C.S. Lewis helps us out a bunch here:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A dolphin wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

In other words, from a biblical viewpoint, this uncomfortable, homeless alienation makes perfect sense.

Numerous times in the Old Testament, for instance, in the ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, we find prophecies addressing the longing for home. In the immediate context, the men were contemplating the oppression and captivity that Israel was facing from ruling powers like Assyria and Babylon. But if you consider the prophecies about Israel’s restoration carefully, you can tell that they don’t find ultimate fulfillment in the Israelites’ release from captivity under the Babylonians. The prophecies promise too much. For instance, the LORD says,

See, I will bring them from the land of the north
    and gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the lame,
    expectant mothers and women in labor;
    a great throng will return.

For the Lord will deliver Jacob
    and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
    they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
    the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
    and they will sorrow no more. (Jer. 31:8, 11-12)

While God did release the Israelites from Babylonian captivity, when some of them returned, it was never like THAT. It was still hard. They still faced enemies. The wolf never really laid down with the lamb (Is. 11:6). They were back, but they still weren’t HOME.

This homelessness problems actually traces all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Back then, the wolf and the lamb got along beautifully. No war. No disease. No starvation. No death. No sin. No selfishness. No criticism. No judgment. No relational dissolution. No trouble. No worry. In the collective consciousness of humanity, we retain this ideal that life should still be like that. The only reason that humanity has such a nation is because the world once was that way…and will be again some day.

The narrative of Christianity is that God created humans whom he loved dearly. But we rebelled. Seeking a life apart from our Creator, we ran away from home.

In the process we’ve experienced alienation. In the same way that if you or I stepped foot on Mars and tried to breathe the air, we’d soon experiencing suffering. Physically, our lungs were made for something different – an atmosphere with 20% oxygen as opposed to 1.5%. We’d fall apart. Psychologically, the isolation would drive us insane – we were created to as interdependent creatures. We’d fall apart.

So as we live on this planet, what do we routinely experience? Physical, psychological, emotional, relational, and spiritual turmoil. The only possible conclusion is that we were built for a better world.

And because God loved us SO MUCH, in the person of Jesus, when we ran away, he literally went to hell and back to rescue us. By grace, he came from beyond this world, as a foreigner, to experience our suffering and isolation, so that we could again become family with God. He came here to bring us HOME.

This gospel promise of everlasting life in Christ is a tremendous resource for dealing with the heartache and frustration of this present life. As someone who has battled episodes of depression for much of my life, I’ve come to the conclusion that God sometimes allows these struggles for me simply to keep my eyes focused on the life that is to come – the real life. I sometimes get a quizzical look when I tell people “I’m not that attached to this place.” But I’m not. I’m looking forward to the life that was intended for me. The life that will be. The perfect life with God. The amazing thing about a gospel mindset then is the ability it gives you to thank God and praise God even in the hard times, even for the hard times – because these are compelling reminders that, for the sake of a Risen Savior, the best is yet to come.

Rejoice that you’re merely a Martian here. Your pain is temporary and alien. Heaven is your home.

“Their mind is set on earthly things. But OUR citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 3:19-20)

(Article originally posted at TimeofGrace.org)

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